AN AMERICAN FAMILY, January 11 – March 29, 1973

Written By: Greg Howell - Jan• 30•18

reality-television-8-638Filmed over a 6 month period, this documentary is hailed by many as the very first true reality series. The 12 episode program, edited from 300 hours of footage, was planned as a document of an average American family, the Louds of Santa Barbara, California. According to a 2016 NYT’s interview with matriarch Pat Loud, the original concept was a documentary of four average American families in different parts of the country, examining the differences and similarities of families from different geographic areas. The producers could not find even one family, much less four! As desperation set in, the crew stumbled upon the Loud family.

However, the series immediately took a dramatic turn when wife Pat, in episode 2, asked for a separation (and a divorce in the final segment) from husband Bill. Even more surprising, son Lance, an admirer of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, developed into the star of the show when he came out openly as gay to his family! In a bold move, Lance moved to New York and into the Chelsea Hotel, seeking to discover himself and explore his gay identity – again, a remarkable twist, and with subject matter that was not only controversial, but taboo! For the first time, Americans were viewing one man’s process of coming out as gay.


There was controversy on both sides of the issue. Lance was brash, outspoken, and flamboyant. Many in the gay community expressed concern about Lance becoming the stereotype of the entire community, not just one particular case study. Nonetheless, Lance’s prideful, honest approach ultimately created TV’s first gay icon.

Kevin Loud;William Loud [& Family];Lance Loud;Michele Loud;Delilah Loud;Grant LoudIf the two main developing story threads became the heart and catalyst for the series’ drama, the remainder of the family offered insight to the state of a modern (and dysfunctional) American family. Watching an emotionally detached father, and, all the while, witnessing children with excessive idle time, were the more relatable attributes of the series. The sheer normality of the Loud family certainly gave average American viewers pause and reflection of their own family lives.

Jeffrey Roush, reporting for Fortune Magazine, wrote, “Fueled by fascination with Lance’s homosexuality and an unwinding marriage between his parents Pat and Bill, a whopping 10 million viewers tuned in weekly. Time magazine, in its May 2015 survey of the “25 Most Influential Marriages of All Time,” listed the Louds as 12th.”

So, is “An American Family” the first reality series? It was the combination of americanfamily_newsweek_20110622203559many things. It was film making without a script. It was journalism without a news story, unfolding as if to create news, not just document it. And while undeniably a documentary, it is also something new for the genre. It was “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” with a story arc and continuing character development, without the wild animals and hosts. It contained the manipulation of “Candid Camera” without the pre-established punchlines. At times, it was “Queen for a Day,” without the prizes.

Ultimately, the series was the fusion of many elements that created something distinct and new in television. It would be several decades before anything resembling “An American Family” would premiere, most notably MTV’s “Real World” in 1992. Several pseudo reality-based programs were aired in the 1970’s and 1980’s, such as “In Search Of,” Leonard Nimoy’s long-running program, as well as “Real People,” and the popular, indefatigable “Unsolved Mysteries.” However, these programs were missing the weekly continuing relationships that are the hallmark of true reality programming.

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